Archives for posts with tag: public relations

In the modern world, no one can nonchalantly claim to be “not tech savvy”. There are only those who choose to keep up, and others who don’t.

Oh no! It’s a think piece! I might have to think while reading! Someone save us from thinking! Save us all!

The issue is far more complex, of course. Many people, practically speaking, don’t have a choice. For non-disabled populations in countries with ample infrastructure, however, the choice is very real, and becoming more vividly clear every day.

Beyond Disruption

A time of technology-driven social change is nearly upon us, and it will alter the way that we see and experience our world. The word “disruption” is an antiquated cliche compared to the imminent mutation of our collective memetic DNA.

Immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR) and various “augmented reality” (AR) techniques can blend human-made interfaces with our awareness of the natural world. These new media are poised to change the cultural landscape with heavy promotion from brands like VR headset maker Oculus Rift (acquired by Facebook) and wearable AR devices like Microsoft Hololens and the inevitable Google Glass 2.0.

And then there’s Magic Leap:

Mass media (marketing, advertising, and other types of propaganda) influences our reality via journalism and social activism, or conversely, pop-culture consumerism and mass apathy.

Imagine a world where media messages literally take on a new dimension, pouring themselves from the screen into the space all around us, innocuously befriending us while seductively whispering their carefully crafted suggestions into our ears.

The urge to comply will become nearly irresistible. That world is coming, and once it penetrates our sensorium and envelopes our thoughts, there will be no turning back.

Media itself is neutral; it has no moral component. The most persuasive messages, however, connect to our deepest drives and strongest desires; they prey on the power of our values, hopes and fears.

Considering how the 2D TV shows are used to constantly pound viewers’ minds with endless advertising, you might quickly realize that televisionland imbued with artificial intelligence and 3D sex appeal may not be such a harmless place.

There’s so much exciting new territory to explore — film, media, systems design and programming, data visualization. It goes far deeper than acting in a hit movie, racking up Internet popularity points, or aspiring to be a hot Instagram model or the next big Hollywood star. Several industries may be born within the next decade surrounding these new media, from NASA Mars Rover simulations and 3D printing, to sustainable city planning and architectural design.

No one really knows what direction these technologies will take. That’s what makes it such a fascinating area of study; there are so many possibilities that we haven’t even begun to explore…

Right now, most technological innovations on the Internet depend not on building a science-fiction future, but rather old-fashioned persuasion taken to an instantaneous worldwide scale.

Mass persuasion has another name. This is the shadowy art and psychological science known as “marketing”.

Internet Marketing

Marketing is an essential, yet oft-misunderstood creature within the continuum of creativity.

Internet marketing is its own discipline, separate from any other. In related realms, acting is separate from screenwriting, screenwriting is distinct from directing, and directing is dissimilar to the role played by a film producer. Marketing, too, has its own set of rules.

As in most areas of life, you tend to get what you pay for. If you see marketing as a peripheral aspect of your work, you’ll pay for it by obtaining generally subpar results. Vice versa is also true — in some cases. Remember that a marketer’s job is to sell their services to you, not necessarily to help you succeed in marketing yourself and/or your products to the world.

When it comes to marketing, there are at least three general options:

1. Hire a pro. Pay as much as it takes to receive the best quality and highest return on investment.

2. Study and learn until you attain the skill (and most importantly, obtain the level of results) comparable to a professional marketing team. This will require about the same amount of time as learning any other skill to an undergraduate level or beyond.

3. Wait for Lady Luck (or Scooter Braun) to bless you when the right person or people happen to stumble upon your self-made marketing attempts. Unless you plan on being the next Justin Bieber-like Youtube superstar, this may not be an efficient or effective route to professional recognition.

In any of the three options, you are spending money (option 1) or time (option 2). Or, you might as well play the lottery and hope for the best like other improbable popstar phenomena who were “discovered” essentially at random (option 3).

According to Silicon Valley hype, Youtube and most social media sites seem like ideal places to spread the word about your work. After all, they’re free and easy to use. Before going all in for the free-and-easy route, one question might change your mind.

Ask yourself: what does Youtube really want?

Youtube (owned by Google), and any Internet service that pretends to be “free” or “cheap”, is almost certainly collecting your personal information and selling it. The Internet runs on real computers, and yes, this includes “The Cloud”. Someone has to pay the electricity bill for the free ride that you’re enjoying by using their machines. Likewise, Internet companies care more about their users in the aggregate rather than any individual user.

Lightning in the Cloud

As long as they can drive more eyeballs to Youtube overall, Google can gather more data, serve more advertising, and make more money. None of their profit motive has anything to do with helping you compose or promote an effective marketing campaign. This principle applies across all “free” social media giants including Facebook and Twitter. The number of “Likes” and upvotes and pageviews can be a completely misleading metric that means the social network is doing well, while signifying next to nothing about your ability to succeed while using that service.

Marketers will try to sell you on the idea that the social media numbers game translates to results in the real world. If that were true, artists wouldn’t be in up in arms about how services like Youtube and Spotify pay abysmally small fees for gargantuan amounts of playback.

Resist the social media numbers game. It’s a rigged gamble that plays on users’ narcissistic need for attention while in the meantime, the website takes the money (and by the way, they now own all of the personal data that you’ve so willingly “shared” with them).

No Bigger Picture: Society Is In Each of Us

This blog entry is part of the “big idea” of studying media’s effects on society. Society, of course, is comprised of individuals like you and me, most of whom are attached to the idea of being “special” in some way or another. Narcissism is the thumbscrew that compels people to overshare on social media sites, to buy items that they don’t need or even want, and to ignore the implications of companies like Facebook that try to make the idea of personal privacy into last season’s passe fashion accessory.

Over the past few years, an ongoing project has been underway to look at these issues. More specifically, the purpose has been to create an alternative to the small cartel of media companies that dominate nearly all of today’s social Web: Google, Facebook, and Apple, among a small number of others (Yahoo still fits, but only because they own Tumblr and a stake in Alibaba).

What if independent artists and creators could build an Internet marketing platform that was effective, ethical and profitable? What if that approach could run like a non-profit or a utility, rather than as a for-profit corporation? What if the creators could retain 100% (or at least, the lion’s share) of the profits from the exposure received while using this new service? And what if this could all be achieved without harming anyone’s human right to the privacy of their personal data?

The borderline human-rights abuses openly engaged in by companies like Apple and Amazon (with the requisite amount of impassioned CEO denials and public relations spin, of course) only make the case more urgent.

In the age of the Internet, the few who control the networks also control the messages that the rest of us are immersed in all day and night. Website and smartphone interfaces are precisely designed to show and hide information, creating an illusion of choice that carefully guides our eyes and fingertips. Using the power of the Internet and emerging technologies, though — from simple browser pop-up blockers to proxy servers and privacy-enhancing VPNs — it doesn’t have to be that way.

We don’t have to succumb to some dystopian near-future scenario, even though that’s the path down which we’re being (mis)led. The average person is expected to be a comfort-seeking, attention-starved sheep craving fifteen seconds of cheap fame at any cost to their long-term digital identity. This is one of the many moments when conforming to average or “normal” behavior is a very bad idea.

Society Is a Hologram As One Part Contains All

The Internet was originally conceived as a nuclear-proof way to connect people around the globe. As sending and receiving payments becomes easier by the day, it only makes sense that individuals can work for each other and get paid for it directly — without the lumbering, meddlesome moneychangers and middlemen who may have been a necessary evil in a previous era.

How can anyone learn to function in such a new world order? How can we cope in a mediated universe, constantly nudged and cajoled into new consumeristic behaviors by beautiful, intelligent machines and their facelessly Macchievillian corporate makers?

Merely coping may no longer be an option. Technology moves so quickly that its effects can pass from system to system like an epidemic of the seasonal flu. Our personal and professional wellbeing is increasingly at stake as we become inextricably enmeshed in the technology that enables us. There is no such thing as a “non-physical” person, but plenty of people ignore their health and eventually suffer the consequences. Immersive technologies extend the metaphors of autobiographical personhood and consciousness in ways that are invisible, and often lie outside our ability to completely control. If we decide to be “not computer savvy”, we are not only trying to live in a bygone past; we choose to abdicate the health of our digital selves to those who want to craft our stories in their image.

In this case, the outcome is holographic: the bigger picture and the smaller one are identical in detail. The only difference is the scale at which we are willing and capable of seeing it. And that scale becomes the warden of our perceptual prison, or the shimmering key to our cultural liberation. Each person shares the responsibility of learning how to design, program and continually refine our process and path to freedom. Freedom is fragile and we have no choice but to learn a little more each day in order to nurture and intelligently evolve it. The alternative is nothing short of enslavement in a world where our choices have been planned in advance and served to us by pretty, empty interfaces built and controlled by unseen hands.

Further Resources





Anyone who has spent considerable time online has probably heard the trusty old phrase, “Information wants to be free”.

People have used that phrase as justification for any number of diverse causes — from the John Draper and the original phone phreaks of the `70s, to Julian Assange and Wikileaks decades later. The United States’ Freedom of Information Act can (in theory) be used by citizens as a means of pressuring the government to disclose data that it might prefer to keep secret. Public records, and now, public data, can be obtained in order to hold police and politicians accountable and pull the balance of power away from totalitarian secrecy. In theory, anyway.

The modern-day idea of information freedom took shape back when the Internet was mainly the domain of nerds sharing technical information. Dial-up modems chirped and squealed across copper phone lines, granting nerds the power to make things that other nerds would think of as ingenious or cool. This was the kind of digital place that people like Steve Wozniack, Alan Kay, Bill Joy and even Aaron Swartz could call home, despite being generations apart in chronological age.

Freedom to make cool stuff was the reason why the Internet (in its post-ARPANET days) evolved the way it did — at least, until it became a platform for the mass surveillance we affectionately call “branding” or “advertising”. The fact that the Internet required technical savvy just to get online (much less to find or do anything interesting) filtered out anyone but those dedicated enough to brave the steep learning curve.

What happens when ordinary people get hold of this “urge for information freedom”? What does it mean to the Average Jane Doe or John Q. Unknown, as can be discerned from the ways that the general public make use of the phrase “information wants to be free”?

After approximately a year of being the moderator of a community on Reddit, here is what I’ve learned.

I allowed my Reddit community to be destroyed by trolls, because honestly, I was bored with it and had amassed enough new ideas to start over. These are my notes, and they may benefit you, too, if you ever contemplate starting an Internet-based hangout, meeting place or network.

Note that my niche on Reddit was science fiction. The people in your chosen subculture may be a little bit different, although I doubt it. You can pretend that you and your readers don’t fit into the categories below. Maybe non-scifi people are a special human breed who are better than the ones I encountered practically everywhere on Reddit.

Reddit 101

In case you know nothing about Reddit, here are the basics. Reddit is basically a superset of popularity-based bulletin boards. The Reddit homepage is a massive board that showcases the most popular topics from all of the smaller boards. The smaller ones are appropriately called “sub-reddits”.

In subreddits, anyone can post a new topic. The readers, called “subscribers”, can click one of a pair of arrows to vote “up” or “down”. Topics that receive more “up” arrows rise to the top of the list for a while until newer/popular topics replace them. “Downvoted” topics are pushed down the listings until they disappear from the front page. Each page of listings holds up to twenty topics; a topic can be a link to another website, or a relatively short posting that operates like a blog entry, in that you can write anything you want others in your subreddit to read.

Below you’ll find out what I learned the hard way over the past year or so as a Reddit community moderator.

Misuse Is The Norm, Because People Hate Learning

The RTFM Principle: The average person is completely thoughtless 99% of the time, and would rather misuse technology than take a moment to figure out how it works.

Reddit’s upvote/downvote arrows are completely misused much of the time. People use the arrows to express whether or not they agree with a topic, which is actually the purpose of being able add comments. Adding comments, however, requires more thought than clicking or tapping a button. Hence, button-tapping wins ninety-nine percent of the time, even though it’s the wrong thing to do.

Whiners, Whiners Everywhere

Principle: The average person loves whining, and will do anything to defend their right to whine and complain while contributing nothing of any value.

This is the most bizarre aspect of the whole Reddit affair. Across subreddit after subreddit, the phenomenon repeated itself: the vast majority of conversations would dwell more on what people didn’t like rather than what they found beautiful, inspiring or fascinating. The most popular science fiction subreddit contains topic after topic of people complaining vociferously about the flaws of Star Wars. The flaws of Battle Star Galactica. The evils of renaming the Sci-Fi Network to be the “Syfy” Network.

It’s basically a kielbasa festival of bitching and moaning about everything in mainstream movies and television. Heaven help you if you post an original piece of work there; Downvote Hell awaits.

On my own subreddit, it was amazing to see this “whining=freedom of speech” dynamic at work. Here’s an example:

There were well over one hundred posts on the subreddit at the time. Most had one or two upvotes, maybe eight at most. Then one day, in a fit of random curiosity, I posted a topic that lampooned the oblivious popstar Iggy Azalea. The post title poked fun at her idiotic blather about how the Internet was pure evil because people dislike her (for good reason) and hence troll her mercilessly on Twitter.

Needless to say, “idiot” is a word that applies perfectly to anyone who blames the Internet itself for the actions of trolls.

Azalea’s tweet reached me via a retweet from Taylor Swift. I absolutely adore Ms. Swift (no, not that Taylor Swift, although she’s not so bad, either). And so I created a silly conversation topic making fun of Iggy Azalea and professing an undying girl-boner for Tay-Tay (it’s all in how you phrase things, darling). Everything about it was so wrong that it could only be awesomely right.

Not only did it receive more comments than any other topic, we received more subscribers than on any other single day. The herd was so confused that the cross-talk built controversy; the controversy created “value” in the form of subscribers, and the subreddit appeared to benefit handsomely as we enhanced our appearance of popularity.

All this for a fake topic comprised of people whining about a fake Australian rap star, originally retweeted from a Twitter account that may or may not be written by the real Taylor Swift.

Ridiculous. Whining for the win. I’m still laughing whenever I think about it.

Where Lurkers Roam, Reading Is Verboten

Principle: The average person dislikes reading, and dislikes thinking even more.

Here’s a quick tip about the “Subscriber” numbers. You’ll find them prominently displayed in the sidebar of most subreddits. Here’s the truth about subscriber counts: the number means absolutely nothing. People routinely click the “Subscribe” button, and… disappear. They don’t upvote. They don’t downvote. They neither post nor comment. They simply vanish, or worse, they “lurk”.

Lurking takes place when a person confuses the Internet for a television channel and sits there waiting for something interesting to happen instead of participating in any way.

Lurkers comprises at least 99% of the Internet, and they hate reading.

Have a look at the Reddit homepage. Better yet, pick any news/entertainment website offering salacious click-bait headlines. Ignore the story itself and read the comments first. Then go back and actually read the story. You’ll find that in a startlingly high percentage of the time, most commenters have never even read the story. Other commenters, exasperated, might have pointed out this fact and told the ingrate to actually read the story before commenting — inevitably to no avail.

This phenomenon is even more prevalent if you expect anyone to click a link, head to another website, read an article, then come back to add their thoughts about what they’ve read.

On Reddit, reams and reams of conversation consist of preconceived opinions spouted as if they were relevant facts. In that light, it may be better that most people lurk; when they offer their insufferably precious opinions, the outcome is either whining or superfluous piffle that adds nothing to any conversation. I resist the term “mental masturbation” because it’s just too easy, and at least masturbation actually has a purpose. The average commenter on Reddit is simply stroking their own ego for no reason at all aside from the onanistic pleasure of accruing worthless-in-the-real-world-or-anywhere-else “karma points”.

Changing The World With Cynical Apathy and Casual Disinterest

Principle: The average person is utterly apathetic and disinterested in anything beyond reactions to his or her own opinion.

As a Reddit moderator, I realized that most people contribute zero real value to a given conversation. They offer no links to primary sources (could Google be any easier to use?) and no well-formed thoughts beyond repetitive sound-bytes imitating other Redditors who have more “cool points”, a.k.a. silly sums of fictional karma.

Question: Why on Earth would anyone waste so much time on Reddit, then, or the Internet more generally?
Answer: The vast majority of comments exist solely to provoke other bored egotists to react with their own comments. If a topic foments enough upvotes and empty chatter between Redditors, it may end up triumphantly posted on the Reddit homepage.

This is why the Reddit homepage is an adorable wasteland of kitten-and-puppy pictures, and Wikipedia-level trivia about everyone’s favorite celebrities like Keanu Reeves (although I must admit, better Keanu than Iggy). Every now and then you’ll see a scare-mongering news piece or rare nugget of information; mostly, it’s snarky neckbeard humour that circulates like stale air trapped in a pressurized cabin cruising somewhere high above terra firma.

In that respect, the users of Reddit are like characters in an endless webcomic created by the masterminds behind a hipster version of Seinfeld. Or maybe, an ironically post-hipster take on Friends. Or maybe, Sharknado with Samuel L. Jackson from Snakes on a Plane. Beware that Reddit-humour is infectious and you might mistakenly try to export it to the real non-neckbeard world. Would you really want to hang out with your unwashed hordes of aimless Reddit-friends in real life?

Grazing Reddit For Hours? Welcome To The Herd

Principle: The average human is a herd animal.

We now know that the average person is an apathetic lurker. We also know that he or she also loves to complain.

So who’s left?

The other creatures grazing Reddit for hours are the proud members of the herd.

The herd, more than anything else, is the functional downfall of Reddit.

The herd will only move as a single unit. Hence, inertia rules: a topic that has no upvotes will tend to remain so. A topic that gains upvote momentum will tend to skyrocket within a certain window of time. A topic that’s downvoted and complained about by one troll, will also tend to be gored and buried by the stampeding herd.

This dynamic completely destroys any pretense of “democracy” or “freedom of speech” to be found on Reddit. Instead, you have something more akin to mindless tribal gamesmanship or drive-by gang warfare tactics. On Reddit, the mob (or perhaps more aptly, the blob) always wins.

And this is why my subreddit was doomed — we tried to do something different. It’s practically impossible to change the way the game as played if people couldn’t be bothered to learn a new set of rules. Ultimately, you end up with the herd roving from pasture to pasture, whining about anything that isn’t “high-concept” enough to be instantly recognizable, while downvoting anything that doesn’t match their existing expectations. Then the inconsolable bovines of Reddit cry on each other’s hulking shoulders with fake outrage that there’s “nothing new left in the world” except blockbusters and remakes.

There would be no blockbusters or interminable strings of superhero reboots if not for the inherently hypocritical and mindless herd.

Information Should Be Worthless, I Mean, Free

Principle: The average person knows nothing about capitalism and therefore is willing to have his or her privacy destroyed for the sake of “free”.

Another feature of the herd is that they are easily led to believe easy lies at the expense of difficult-yet-obvious truths. The most important truth that I’ve learned is a reinforcement of the obvious fact that nothing of any value in life is free.

No one will moderate a community very well if they’re simply throwing time away to battle trolls and attempt to stir lurkers from their customary apathy. So the moderators on Reddit tend to do a poor job, arbitrarily censoring some content and allowing low-quality pieces to be posted. Some members are banned while some are allowed to continue bullying others.

When our subreddit made the rules transparent, trolls whined that the existence of rules was itself an impingement on their “freedom of speech” and began a downvoting campaign against us. When we stated why some posts were allowed and explained exactly what kind were not, the trolls whined louder about how a focused subreddit was the work of a “tyrant” who was trying to destroy the “freedom of information”.

Freedom of speech and freedom of information have been perverted to mean that idiots on Reddit can destroy any community by taking the “victim” role. They can then incite fake outrage for the sake of bullying into submission anyone who tries to do something different. The average person would rather be tricked and manipulated from behind the scenes (i.e. surveillance, I mean, “advertising”) rather than be told community rules and guidelines without sleight-of-mouth misdirection or intentional ambiguity.

Fixing Reddit. Is It Possible? Should We Scrap It And Start Over?

Reddit’s discovery features are also broken, so very few people even know when a new subreddit has been created. To counter that, I started sending private messages to readers of other sci-fi subreddits — one message only, saying essentially this: “hey, we exist. Come have a look if you want.” I also set up a Patreon account to take donations toward building a better website just for us.

Since any form of “spamming” is outlawed on Reddit, a troll complained loudly enough that our community was obliterated by the administrators. Without any other means of telling potential readers about us, the subreddit would never have grown at all — as is the case with the vast majority of Reddit’s communities. What Reddit has on its hands is a conundrum that they seem unable or unwilling to solve.

Two simple fixes would repair at least some of Reddit’s flaws:

1. Allow moderators to disallow downvotes in order to discourage trolls.

It’s baffling that this isn’t an option for moderators to turn on or off. The only plausible answer might be the fear of stifling “freedom of speech” and “freedom of information” which, as we’ve seen, are basically a sham at worst and a false argument at best. At the very least, this would give moderators the ability to shut out some of the noise that can ruin a subreddit at the click of the “downvote” arrow. Allow mods to do as they wish if they’d prefer to encourage upvotes rather than facilitate angry lurkers, perpetual whiners and hateful trolls.

2. Create an effective way to notify Redditors of new subreddits that match their interests.

When the herd receives a message from the site itself, it’s a “recommendation”, whereas a message from an individual is “spam”. Use the herd’s cognitive bias of blind faith in authority to help subreddits attain at least some visibility. From there, a subreddit can grow without the omnipresent spectre of complete ruin by the wrathful Gods of Reddit, who unknowingly are doing the bidding of trolls rather than assisting creative experiments in community-building.

The profiteering army of Steve Jobs-wannabes and cynical “hackers” like Mark Zuckerberg have, in a sense, equalized the playing field. Now anyone and everyone is on the Net, literally numbering in the billions. They are in many ways nothing like the ones who started the revolution in global communication, yet they often use the same terminology. Radical ideas have become “gentrified” as the “market sector” has “matured” and simultaneously devolved to the level of empty corporate marketing jargon.

Privacy, as a principle of self-protection, becomes gutted and pushed aside, derided as anachronistic in a public-relations war against anyone who “has something to hide” (which, incidentally, is everyone, including you). Sharing is no longer optional, yet people compulsively push themselves at each other in fetishistic obsession for the illusion of instant celebrity, driven by a new kind of social anxiety. Dissent now means being exiled from the worldwide monoculture of bland selfies and fashionably “edgy” behavior, quietly sponsored by whatever brand is crowding your eyes and clouding your mind with ads at the moment.

Reddit had the potential to do better than that. I have a feeling that Aaron Swartz would agree, and maybe even Wozniak, too (though definitely not Steve Jobs, as Jobs’ contribution to tech was that he turned computers into glossy high-status toys). Shills, trolls and the herd are the opposite of what makes the Internet great. Hopefully my notes can help you to see what’s happening from a different perspective and maybe even help create a better way. As for me? I’m still just getting started. My goals are still alive and my sense of purpose is stronger than ever. Maybe we can make something cool and useful together.

The Internet was designed as a robust communication network — not as a commercial medium. “Data” can be anything passed between two computers. It just so happens that music, books and movies can be digitally encoded as “data”.

Since the Internet is merely a network (not a market), and can transport any data via its networking protocols, is the Internet also cannibalizing all forms of data, including music, books and movies?

All future generations will potentially be able to download any accessible data for the price of an Internet connection.

Life is short. The creation of anything valuable requires time-intensive work. This effectively shortens your lifespan by the number of hours it takes to finish a project.

Many children now learn to use file-sharing apps and networks before they learn the scarcity and value of time. Time, energy and effort are never free, but many people who are not “creative” seem not to recognize the potential value of time unless it has an hourly wage attached. If they did recognize time’s value, how would anyone seriously claim that someone else’s creative work could be free?

Given the scarcity and value of time, the mantra that “information is free” is immediately shown as false. Massive corporations can afford to use major marketing and PR to their advantage; hence, they will survive and get bigger. Individuals and independent artists/scientists who are working after-hours from their garage simply cannot compete with companies that can pay to have their upcoming products spammed across millions of screens, billboards, radio channels, and Internet advertising platforms (including paid ads on social networks).

More importantly, the farther a company’s reach, in terms of marketing, the smaller percentage they have to earn in order to turn a profit.

Imagine that you can realistically hope for 5% of people to buy your work after they hear about it.

At $7 per copy, an indie film made for $100,000 would need 14,285 viewers to recoup their budget. You would have to reach approximately 285,700 people in order to break even if 5% of them paid for your film. To make a $100,000 profit would require over half a million people to know about your film. And that’s only if you could reliably identify a target group of people who might plausibly be interested in your particular work; otherwise, you might not even get 5% to care.

Even in the age of the Internet, a half-million is a lot of people. And the $100,000 covers only the production costs — not the years spent crafting the concept, bringing together a group of skilled people, and then managing the project.

Enter the Internet. You’ve sunk years of effort and $100,000 of funds into the film. Within days, someone buys your film, rips it, and posts it online. People who would otherwise have paid for it can now download for free because they’ve convinced themselves that accessibility is equal to morality. People who wouldn’t have needed a “moral” stance before doing the right thing (i.e. paying for a creative work) can now say that “information wants to be free” and thereby ignore the human cost entirely.

This is like a clerk leaving a jewelry store unattended, and as people crowd in to clean off the shelves, they get caught — then complain that “diamonds want to be free” or “I own the diamonds because this ring weighs practically nothing” or “this diamond ring sucks. I wouldn’t have bought it anyway, so now that I have it, I should be allowed to keep it”, or “it’s not fair. The jeweler didn’t make all these diamonds. He didn’t dig them from the Earth or cut and polish them. He’s trying to make a profit by selling them for more than he bought them. Diamonds want to be free. So beyond an arbitrary amount, he shouldn’t be able to make any more money from them. He should give them away for free to anyone who wants them.”

Making copies of data is “free”. Creating information — the meaningful shape of data that gives you science, films, music and songs — is never free.

A major studio can afford to buy exposure to millions of people and absorb massive losses in revenue in order to get five (or six, or ten) percent of potential customers to buy. So even in the Internet era, big players can make a tidy profit on blockbusters and superstars. And then the big players aim for the lowest common denominator in creating mediocre “safe bets” like yet another Transformers movie or another string of comic-book franchises rather than anything more risky or artistically viable than “Guardians of the Galaxy”.

Meanwhile, indie artists and scientists don’t have the luxury of such a wide loss-margin. The trick is in the percentages: five percent of everyone who looks at a screen that you can reach — that’s a far bigger pie if you can reach most of the screens. It’s practically nothing if all you’ve got is e-begging on Kickstarter and panhandling for “Likes” on Facebook.

Not every work is amenable to the “value add” that many are desperately trying to use to entice people to buy. “Buy my new album and you’ll also get to have a drink with me, only if you pledge [x] amount” is a ludicrous way to try to substitute for lost revenues over the span of a career. These are all strange ways to compensating for the fact that your fans are simply stealing from you, and refuse to even acknowledge it unless you sell them an “experience” that’s not so easy to download.

And that’s why I don’t get the idea that the Internet “should” make everything free, as if this were some kind of “natural” evolution. There’s nothing “natural” about telling people that** they shouldn’t be able to earn a living because their work can be made into a stream of data, and data “wants to be free”.

** …unless they work for a massive corporation that can carpet-bomb the planet with a marketing blitz, that is…

Life is short and nothing is free, unless you steal it. The definition of stealing is that someone suffers while another person gains from that person’s misfortune. The World Wide Web is over fifteen years old now. The lack of alternatives means that access to art and science is now, more than ever, the exclusive domain of large corporations that can thereby exert even more control over what is and isn’t produced, promoted and sold.

This is the larger issue that very few people seem to even see, much less care about.

It’s also hardly the outcome that anyone could tout as a benefit from stealing someone else’s work under the banner of “freedom”, but that’s exactly what’s happening. The problem isn’t only that information is “free” — the problem is that it still isn’t free (and never was, and never will be). Artists lose a livelihood, scientists lose funding, and corporations make a killing based on the greed of the average person’s desire to get something for nothing, while being conned into using fake moral arguments that also make them accomplices in the crime.

Sounds like business as usual? It may be. Only now thievery is instant, worldwide, and even has a convenient pseudo-moral ideology to rationalize it away, rather than inspire people to work toward a better approach that would give artists and scientists a way to make a living. You may say “screw the corporations” or not, but at the very least, don’t screw the little guy. Or maybe at the very, very least, don’t give him the short end while pretending to do the world a favor.